March is a time of basketball related rejoicing. The NCAA Tournament starts midway through the month, but in the early weeks we get a flurry of fantastic college basketball with the various conference tournaments which will help decide the field for the Big Dance. I’m going to take a look at each conference, try (almost certainly unsuccessfully) to pick the winner, and determine whether anyone from that conference can make some noise, come Tourney Time. So with that, onward and upwards amigos!
The Big 12. Known primarily as the home to a veritable cornucopia of Texas Schools and football powerhouses. This is the conference that popularized the spread offense in College Football and is, year in and year out, one of the countries best football conference. This year, however, they also just happen to be the nations best College Basketball Conference bar none. They’ve been very good for a long time now with Kansas being a constant contender in the Bill Self Era, and with Texas’s Rick Barnes and Baylor’s Scott Drew being dominant forces on the college basketball recruiting scene, but this year the conference on a whole has taken things to another level. They’re certainly not as deep as a conference like the ACC, but the nearly every team in the Big 12 this year is a tournament caliber team, so let’s take a look.
The bottom of the league isn’t great, but its a heck of a lot better than a lot of the Power 5, including the ACC. Texas Tech has been rebuilding for an eternity, and sooner rather than later Tubby Smith is going to have them back in gear, and winning, but they’re still a few years away. TCU had a horrendously soft non-conference schedule in all truth, but hey… this still managed to open the season 13-0 with wins over 3 teams from Power Conferences, one of whom (Ole Miss) has a very good chance at making the NCAA Tournament this year, so they’re not nearly as awful as say a Wake Forest in the ACC, USC in the Pac 12, or Penn State in the Big 10. They’re solid, if not NCAA Tournament quality, and if you threw them in the SWAC or the Sun Belt, we’d probably talking about them as potential Tournament team. Kansas State has had a ton of success in the past, and are definitely rebuilding now under new head coach Bruce Weber, but that didn’t stop them from grabbing 5 wins against Tournament teams this year (2 against Oklaoma, 1 against each of Kansas, Baylor, and Iowa State). So even the bad teams in the Big 12 look pretty impressive at times. But now let’s take a look at the teams that will probably be playing in March. By my estimation (and bracketing wizard Joe Lunardi’s as well) the Big 12 should fairly comfortably put 7 teams into the NCAA Tournament… either the most or tied for the most of any conference in college basketball. So without further ado let’s meet them.
Okie State has taken quite a bit of a step back since losing All American Point Guard Marcus Smart to the NBA over the summer. However, while I for once thought they’d be out of NCAA Tournament contention all year, they’ve shocked me by putting up solid numbers all season long and forcing their way into the NCAA conversation. A big reason for this is the addition of troubled transfer PG Anthony Hickey from LSU. Kentucky native Hickey was a great player for LSU but troubles off the court made him too much to handled and the school finally decided to part ways with him after last season in hopes that he could get his life together elsewhere. Elsewhere turned out to be Oklahoma State where Travis Ford has experience rehabilitating troubled Point Guards, specifically with Smart last season so its no surprise to see him land on his feet there.
Also, its not like the cupboard was left bare after Smart left. Phil Forte III was already good last season and finally took the final step up to full stud status this season. But Le’Bryan Nash is the real star of this team. He’s a borderline NBA lottery pick, and guaranteed first rounder this off-season, and is one of the best players in a stacked Big 12. The Cowboys might not have as much depth as some other Big 12 teams, but with those 3 at the helm there’s no way they should miss the NCAA Tournament this year. I doubt they’ll make it very far once they get there, but I know nobody would be happy to see Okie State as their first round opponent.
Next come the preseason top 10 Texas Longhorns. The Longhorns are a complicated story this year as they’ve been absolutely eaten up in conference play. I’m not certain what’s wrong with this team, but they are FAR better than a 19-12 overall, 8-10 Big 12 record indicates. The length and athleticism on this roster with Myles Turner, Jonathan Holmes, Cameron Ridley, and even Connor Lammert should be absolutely overwhelming teams, and WAS at times in the non-conference, but something just went wrong in conference play. Admittedly, part of that was probably just the fact that the Big 12 is so good, but either way if they miss the Tournament it may very well cost Rick Barnes his job, which would be a shame, but heck… maybe coaching is the problem. I’m skeptical that’s really it, because even though Rick Barnes isn’t a Coach of the Year caliber guy, he’s certainly near the top of the game, and an elite recruiter.
Either way its baffling that this team could miss the Tournament. I hope they make it, and if they get there they could easily make a deep run when they get to match up with some less athletic and less talented non-Big 12 teams for once, but they might need a deep run in the Big 12 Tourney to punch their ticket. This further complicates matters in that of all the teams in the Big 12 there is probably only 1 that they have a naturally bad matchup against… Iowa State. Texas just can’t really stop Georges Niang, and its been a real problem for them this season. So… who does Texas get matched up with in the second round of the Big 12 Tournament? … Iowa State… I hope they can make the NCAA Tournament, and have high hopes for them if they get there, but they’re skating on thin ice right now.
West Virginia is a team that I have to admit I don’t really understand. I get the fact that Bob Huggins has been a great coach for the entirety of his basketball coaching career, regardless of whatever struggles he may have off the basketball court. And I get that Juwan Staten and Devin Williams are a great 1-2 punch that countless teams across the country would be incredibly jealous of. But I have no idea how Huggins has this team performing at such a high level this season. They completely took me by surprise this season, but at 23-8 they’re definitely a competitive team. I haven’t been able to convince myself to buy into them yet, but they definitely deserve to be in the Tournament, and can probably even make some noise once they get there.I don’t know that I expect them to win the Big 12 Tourney or anything, but clearly Huggins has put together yet another solid winning team for the Mountaineers.
Baylor, however, is a team that baffles me even more than West Virginia. With WVU I simply don’t know enough about the team outside of Coach Huggins to understand what makes them tick, but with Baylor for some reason I haven’t bought into them all year even though I know full well that they are constantly stacked with talent thanks to the spectacular recruiting they do. I know full well that Rico Gathers and Kenny Chery are the real deal, and superb leaders to build a team around. I know full well that Baylor has been a top notch program for several years now, but perhaps because they have underachieved so often with far superior teams I’m just waiting for them to slip up. They’ve done just that multiple times this season following up big wins with equally big losses, but in the end I think I need to get over my prejudices and buy into this team. I reeeeally like Chery has a gritty, tough, hard nosed gaurd, and Rico Gathers is an athletic freak who rebounds better than practically anyone in the country. This team isn’t as deep as Baylor teams of the past, but they have leaders with Tournament experience, and talent to run with anyone. I’m not sure how far they’ll get but I certainly expect them to be an exciting team once the NCAA Tournament starts.
After last season’s first round loss to North Dakota State, I’ve scrutinized Oklahoma pretty hard all season long. In fact I’ve been borderline unfair to them I think. They starting 5 a rock solid, and led by Buddy Hield who will be the best player on the floor in most matchups the Sooners find themselves in. Moreover, whereas last year’s Sooners were an offensive powerhouse that had a propensity to play soft on defense (which cost them in the Tournament) this team is, by all accounts, one of the ten best defenses in the country. Moreover, because they have that offensive legacy from last year and a starting five where absolutely everyone can score and have the offense run through them if need be there’s not much danger of a San Diego State scenario here where an elite defensive team is bounced because they simply can’t score. Oklahoma is good. They have all the pieces you need to make a deep run in the Tournament (I’m thinking maybe Elite 8?), but they still seem ripe for upsets. They were swept this season by Kansas State, lost to Washington and Creighton (a baaaaad Creighton team) in the non-conference and have just punted away so many opportunities all season long that I’m incredibly scared to pick them in the Tournament. The talent is there. The play is there. But we’ll have to wait until the NCAA Tournament to see if the whole picture is there for Lon Kruger’s bunch.
I LOVE Iowa State. Everything about them. Fred Hoiberg is an elite coach. One of the best in college basketball. He plays a progressive, professional style of game that is incredibly fun to watch. He stocks his roster with exciting stud guys, frontlined this year by the absolute beast that is Georges Niang. His teams play hard and play together. They’re balanced offensively and defensively, and do all the gritty things you expect from a top tier team. However, there seems to be something off with this team. Last year’s team was better than this year’s edition in nearly every way, and yet the were upset by eventual champions UConn in the Sweet 16, so if that team couldn’t make a Final Four, I’m not sure I can believe this one will. Moreover, they lost a lot of talent off last year’s roster, and have dropped several games that should have been wins this year (Maryland? South Carolina? How did you lose to these guys?). In the end, then, there is a TON to love about the Cyclones. In fact, I’m even picking them to win the Big 12 Tournament. However, they seem to have an Achilles Heel in them somewhere that makes me terrified that they will once again underachieve come Tournament time. Hopefully I’m wrong and they make it to the Elite 8 or beyond this year, but only time will tell.
Hands down the class of this league is KU. Year after year… for the last 11 seasons in fact, Kansas has either won outright or won a share of the Big 12 title. They’re a basketball power going back to college basketballs earliest days, and the Bill Self Era has been no different. Well… its a little different in that Bill Self has brought Kansas into the era of Freshman phenoms with resounding authority. This year that means Kelly Oubre who, even though his numbers don’t show it (Bill Self can get top freshmen recruits but he is absolutely terrible for their careers once he has them… but for some reason they keep picking Kansas… but thats another story) is a real stud. Add in Perry Ellis, Frank Mason and Wayne Seldon and you have the core of yet another good Kansas team. I’m not certain that they’re great, and injuries to Perry Ellis / suspensions for Cliff Alexander and Brannen Greene could very well derail their Final Four aspirations this year, I still think this is easily an Elite 8 team. It might not be a great Kansas team, but these guys are still really really good.
The Big 12 may not have the same kind of elite contenders at the top of their league like the ACC has with Duke and Virginia (both of whom should make the Final Four and could win a title), but the Big 12’s depth and overall ability blow absolutely everyone else out of the water this year. If a team like Texas had performed to the best of their abilities I think a lot more people would be floored by what the Big 12 has done, but even so… this is easily the best conference in college basketball this season. I’m not sure how deep their teams will go. In fact I halfway expect them to get 7 teams into the Tournament, but possibly end up with only 1 team in the Elite 8. However I hope people don’t try to judge the Big 12 exclusively by how they perform in the postseason, because they have absolutely owned college basketball this year, and I hope people realize that.